“You lost, get over it, respect democracy”

I have been challenged on several occasions since the EU referendum on June 23rd over my attitude towards democracy. “You lost. Get over it. That’s democracy. We’ve got to leave. We’re all Brexiters now”. I am firmly a democrat, and that is why I’ve continued to argue the case for the UK to remain in the EU. In some circles, sadly including the UK government, democracy now means complying with the demands of the owners and editorial staff ouf our most unpleasant tabloids. They represent “the will of the people”. I don’t buy that, and I don’t accept the rather childish definition of democracy that means if you get one more vote than the other side then you can do whatever you want.

This article sums up my arguments why I think leaving the EU on the basis of the referendum result, and especially leaving the Single Market, is not necessarily democratic.

  1. David Cameron was two faced in telling the country that it was a straightforward in-out referendum. However, Parliament was asked to legislate for an advisory referendum. If the proposed referendum legislation had stated that a Leave victory would require the government to invoke Article 50 then there would have been debate about the safeguards that a mandatory referendum would need.

    This is a particularly important point in a referendum that will lead to us losing our rights as EU citizens. It is not a simple matter of choosing an MP to represent us and giving the job to the candidate who received the most support. Brexiteers insist that winning one more vote than Remain allows them to take away our rights. Out of every 100 voters 48 wanted to retain these rights as EU citizens. 52 did not want these rights and many of them are taking malicious glee in insisting that the 48 have to suck it up and lose some of their civil rights. Mature democracies don’t work that way. Removing people’s rights is a big deal and needs suitable safeguards.

    As it transpired, only 37% of the UK electorate voted to leave and 63% did not. The Trade Union Act 2016 stipulated that any industrial action by workers in “important public services” requires support by both a majority and at least 40% of the electorate. No Tory MPs voted against this act, or against the EU Referendum Act. If the referendum act had had a 40% safeguard Remain would have won.

    The question every Conservative politician should answer is why the party considers a one day train strike more important than the UK’s future, its EU membership and our rights as EU citizens. The obvious answer is that the government dared not confront its backbenchers or UKIP who would have been furious at any safeguards. Until the Conservatives can provide a more persuasive reason I shall assume that under David Cameron’s disastrous leadership they put the party before the country.

  2. If it had been merely an opinion poll the result would have had no validity because of the ambiguity over what Leave meant. People voted leave for many different reasons. Theresa May is proceeding on the assumption that the question asked “Do you think the country is pretty shit these days?” and gives her the right to do what she likes now to placate the frenzied headline writers in the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

    The most bizarre aspect of the current mess is the widespread acceptance of May’s autocratic behaviour. She, like all Tory MPs, was elected on a manifesto “to safeguard British interests in the Single Market”. The EU referendum was a mandate to leave the EU. The question did not ask about the Single Market, immigration or free movement, yet she is acting as if this vague question, with no indication of the options or consequences, gives her an overwhelming mandate for drastic action, including taking us out of the Single Market.

    Only 52% voted to leave the EU. Amongst those are many voters who believed the promises we could stay in the Single Market. Conservative MPs are honour bound to apply that decision in a way that is consistent with their electoral mandate and their duty to act in the national interest. They should therefore press for membership of the Single Market from outside the EU, like Norway. They won’t, because they are spineless or happy to put party before country, but they should. Of course that outcome would obviously be worse than we had before, but it should be up to the Brexiters to justify that. They shouldn’t be allowed to go straight for a far worse option to hide the fact they had no coherent plan that could have won a majority. If they can’t justify the only outcome for which they have a mandate then we have a reasonable right to ask whether we should leave the EU at all.

    Sadly, Mrs May’s priority is to appease euro-sceptic backbenchers and keep her tanks parked firmly on UKIP’s lawn to make it clear to Tory voters that there is no point defecting to the right now that her Tory party has morphed into UKIP. To May the will of the people means what a majority of Leave voters want, ie a minority of those who voted. The 48% and less extreme Leave voters don’t count. If she uses the Royal Prerogative to bypass Parliament and remove us from the Single Market she will be doing so with no democratic mandate and against the wishes of the British people. Remember that the Brexit majority was so small that if even 4% of those who voted Leave want to stay in the Single Market that wipes out the Leave majority. There is only a mandate for leaving the Single Market if more than 96% of Brexit voters wanted that. Since they were not even asked the question it is ludicrous to assume that they all want it. Leaving the Single Market on the basis of this referendum would be the most disgraceful abuse of power by any British politician since the introduction of universal suffrage. All politicians who take democracy seriously have a duty to fight this.

  3. Following on from that point, Leave voters want wildly different outcomes, none of which could have beaten Remain in a straight fight. There is no mandate for any one of them. Remain is the most popular option, but that has been excluded because of a spurious definition of “democracy”. If David Cameron had had sufficient nerve and integrity he would have insisted that Leave campaigners come up with an agreed vision of what Brexit would mean, and that would have been put to the country as an alternative to continuing membership. He should have rejected outright any attempt to offer a “pro having cake and pro eating it” manifesto, as offered by Boris Johnson.

    The Leave campaigns learned from the Scottish independence referendum, in which the SNP led Scottish Government produced a detailed white paper about what independence would mean. This was dissected, debated, and ultimately rejected by the electorate. Leave therefore took a strategic decision that they would offer no detail, nothing that could be challenged, and simply exploit the confusion. This was politically brilliant, but it was utterly unprincipled and far from democratic.

  4. By structuring the referendum in this way with a flawed status quo being matched against a nebulous alternative, in order to pacify Tory backbenchers and UKIP, the government provided the Leave campaigns with every incentive to lie; they could do so with impunity. This further confuses what the result means. After the poll the Leave campaigns slipped away into the shadows and their public faces all brazenly disassociated themselves from the contradictory, dishonest claims it had made, and cheerfully cherry picked the aspects of Brexit they favoured, ignoring all the promises and reassurances.

  5. We have a representative, parliamentary democracy in which MPs have to balance their different objectives in a coherent programme that their party has persuaded the country is for the national benefit. Treating the EU referendum as mandatory means that MPs are instructed to act in a certain way, even if they believe it is against the national interest, and inconsistent with the other policies for which they already have a mandate from the electorate. The result is a mess that we have not even begun to work our way through.

  6. Millions whose future is affected were not allowed to vote. If it had been on the same basis as the Scottish independence referendum (ie EU nationals and 16/17 year olds allowed to vote) Remain woud have won. Incidentally, if the Scottish referendum had been on the same basis as the EU one then Scotland would be independent now. Which basis is right? Which is “democracy”? For what it’s worth I believe EU citizens and these youngsters should have been allowed a vote because they live here, have a stake in the country and this deeply affects their future.

    UK citizens who had left the country more than 15 years ago were also excluded, although it was a commitment in the 2015 Conservative manifesto that they should be allowed to voted in all elections.

    The UK government chose to disenfranchise all these people, for cynical rather than principled reasons. They were too scared to have a fair vote. They hoped they could concede everything to UKIP and still win. That was a political decision. There is no natural, correct, democratic answer about what the correct electorate should have been and that is what the Brexiteers implicitly assumed; of course foreigners, ex-pats and kids can’t have a say, they might not give the “right” answer.

  7. The result was so close, with older voters favouring Brexit, and younger voters wanting to remain, that demographic changes will mean there’s a majority to stay in the EU by the time we eventually do leave, even if no-one changes their mind. So even setting aside those who regret their decision, and there are already enough of them to reverse the result, we will leave the EU with a majority of the electorate wishing we could stay. That’s democracy is it?

  8. A simple, binary referendum is totally unsuitable for this sort of complex decision with huge, far-reaching implications. The decision, either way, was always going to produce results that made people who were ostensibly on the winning side say “but I didn’t want that”.

These are just some of the reasons that insisting on leaving the EU isn’t necessarily a democratic decision. There are other good reasons why the referendum should never have been called, such as the effect on Northern Ireland, and the possibility it could result in Scotland leaving the Union. It was an incredibly reckless act in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, in which a constant theme was “vote No to safeguard Scotland’s place in the EU”. It’s not a matter of calling for a re-run of the referendum. I’ve long experience of being on the losing side of elections. This is different. The UK, if it survives, has been hijacked by a faction of the Tory party, with no mandate. The consequences could be irreversible. This is not democracy.

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23 thoughts on ““You lost, get over it, respect democracy”

  1. I know many people have said that they expect MP’s to be able to vote on when to trigger the Article 50 notification. There are even Court cases going on around this now.
    I believe this should happen, one of the arguments against I keep hearing is MP’s should ‘respect’ the referendum. I agree with this too – however, I also believe that it is possible to respect something but not agree with it.

    When I hear those who voted Leave say that MP’s must also vote leave they are, I think, missing a significant point. MP’s are there to represent all of their constituents, not just those who voted in the referendum. There are those who did not vote and whose views cannot be assumed either way. There also those who were too young to vote and MPs must consider what is best for them. It is, after all, their futures that is being decided…

    It is up to each MP to represent their constituents best interests. If they genuinely believe that Brexit is best, so be it they should be able to vote ‘Leave’ in good conscience. If they believe Remaining in the EU is best, they should vote that way in good conscience as well. There can be no other way for our Parliament to work. Isn’t that our UK democracy.

    Surely to deprive MP’s of that opportunity to vote on the biggest issue in British Politics for some time is to take sovereignty away from our own Parliament. No-one voted for that…

    • Your point about who do MP’s represent is key and has also featured in the Corbyn debate. The lack of comprehension that elected MP’s need to represent all views is lost on some of the electorate.
      I’m starting to feel like a conspiracy theorist about how the campaign was fought and the media role is the one that makes me most uneasy 😳

    • I agree – and think that T.May and other Brexiteers’ mantra that ‘the Will of the People should be respected’ is completely disingenuous. It is not the will of ‘the People’ of the UK in the first place, as James Christie explains; and while one would expect that the Tories would attempt to mitigate the negative sentiments that gave rise to the narrow majority for Brexit, and in doing so give due ‘respect’ to the result of the vote, they certainly do not have a mandate to wreck the economy, create poverty among British settlers in Europe, constrain the choices of the young when it comes to education and careers, promise kickbacks of any sort to Nissan et al nor to continue to withhold adequate funding for infrastructure, housing and health care while supporting economic immigration and then call that ‘respect’. They also have a responsibility to rein in the enthusiasm of British racists and xenophobes, not to stoke it up as they have been doing, particularly May (why else would she so disastrously manage immigration prior to the referendum and then after it reject the advice of Hammond and Tyrie to remove international student numbers (around 400K for 2015) from immigration statistics?).

      A lot of Brexiteers threaten social disorder if the referendum result is not ‘respected’ in the shape of formal notification of and organisation for leaving the EU; however, I think that if May and her fellow right wing Tories carry on down their current path, there is a much greater risk of disorder as people’s jobs and prospects disappear and their food bills become unaffordable.

  2. I agree with every word you have written (and so do many people in my family). The most distressing thing is to lose EU citizenship rights and I do believe that many leave voters had no clue of what they were giving up. The ignorance about the EU is profound- even today Brexit supporters spread the myth that the EU is dominated by a small number of foreigners residing in Brussels. They seem to know nothing of the EU Parliament or the fact that the UK had one of the largest representations in it., or the fact that many of the laws passed are with the agreement of all member states and are designed to raise standards of living, environment, employment etc across the EU, nor do they seem to realise that there are many national laws relating to crime, taxation, national security which do not come within the remit of EU law. As you have so rightly stated this was far too complex an issue to allow a largely untutored population, influenced by a rabidly right wing press, to vote upon and the government has been totally irresponsible in allowing this to happen. Unfortunately there seems to be no one listening to the many remain voters or experts who are devastated by the outcome of the referendum and we are now at the mercy of the ignorant majority.

  3. I agree with everything you’ve written. I’m 75 and have run my own business since I was 26. Rule number 1 is always chose work close to home if possible. To jeopardise a major market on our doorstep is foolish in the extreme. Talk of new business 12000 miles away by the right wing Tories with no real business experience is a joke.

  4. Yes, substantively i think I agree in all but a few tiny details that are not worth going into. Cameron played a dangerous game on the premise that his side would win hands down and that would be that. It would be a ‘once in a generation’ vote as his party have always said of the Scottish referendum. It was not. Cameron had played his cards wrong but rather than confront the issue he took the coward’s option by resigning. Had he stayed and fought for his original cause by reviewing the vote within the parliamentary setting, it is probably an even money bet the UK would not be in the state of turmoil and uncertainty that reigns at present. So, having resigned as PM he opened the door to a nightmare parade of candidates for his replacement. Indeed Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May were on the starting blocks to lead the Tories. I have always seen Theresa May as Cameron’s successor, never imagining Osborne would achieve that well before his demise in discredit. As the ‘big guns’ drifted away, it was apparent who would win, but it never came to a real selection with all other candidates dropping out. May walked it without effort. However, she did not take Cameron’s ‘mission’ forward, she started mildly autocratic and has become increasingly so. Debates that should be held, secrets that parliament, if indeed not the entire electorate, withheld and appointments behind closed doors. Yet there are denials when any comparison is made with the enormous error Hindenburg made when he asked Hitler to become Chancellor in Germany in 1933. It was far extremer, but democracy ended that day. May has made small steps against Hitler’s immediate massive leaps, but the comparisons being made hold water nonetheless.

    Alone the notion that the 48% should be entirely ignored and media be allowed to call the Bremoaners or Remoaners and simply turning heads, hearts and minds away from lies and smears, domination of the campaign by a partial media and since almost palpable tolerance of growing xenophobia and arrogant refusal to listen to the advice, and even a few threats, by the other 27 members of the EU. But no, not just them but the experts who should be heard, except that they have all been put in purdah because experts ‘don’t know nuffink’ and anyway there are lots of foreign ones and it is official their voices are not to be heard. May is generating what is thus far soft totalitarianism. Yet she comes across ‘bossy’ only with more than a lion’s share of incompetence. Look at who she has appointed to key positions, bear in mind all her ambiguous words followed by telling Gibraltar, Northern Ireland and Scotland they will have no say, just consultation (which we shall not listen to – in brackets).Autocracy will divide the UK, estrange it from Europe entirely and then what will be left is blaming Johnny Foreigner and a long, long sulk.

  5. I may soon be raging that I want my two countries back! I am a retired 69 year-old grandfather of five children and worked during most of my career in export sales. 60 % of our sales went to the EU. It would have been so much more difficult to sell what were not unique chemical products for the printing industry, if there had not been free movement of goods. I value highly my EU passport and am also proud of being half Scottish, half English with a bit of Irish thrown in – therefore truly British. With two strokes of a pencil I will be deprived of my EU citizenship and also run the risk of seeing the UK being broken up. More serious is the fact that my three children will have much fewer opportunities in their careers, not to mention the unimaginably deprived financial and cultural future for my grandchildren who will grow up in an inevitably insular society.

  6. I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with the original article and also with the previous commentators. To me it is blindingly obvious that Brexit is a huge, regrettable mistake, and for the life of me I can’t understand how so many cannot see this. “There is none so blind as he who will not see.” Two points: it wasn’t 52% but 51.9%, I believe. A small difference when put like this, but it translates into thousands of remainers being put into the leavers’ camp erroneously – why should their numbers be bolstered in this way? I disagree that there are significant numbers of leavers who now regret their decision. My experience is quite the opposite. They are obstinately bunkering down and holding their ears shut to any logical argument, but occasionally surfacing to hurl abuse at anyone who thinks that the EU could possibly be a positive influence. I particularly dislike the frequent use of “Remoaner” or “Bremoaner” by the media, which goes unchallenged, as was the case when Michael Portillo complained about “Remoaners” on This Week and not even Alan Johnson sitting next to him picked him up on it. A sad state of affairs.

  7. If another Brexiteer tells me “everything will be fine/I did it for my grandchildren”, I may stop being polite. I have lived in France for 10 years and am terrified at what may happen to expats in Europe. Why did some Brits living here vote to leave? And, poor, poor Gibraltar. Beyond comprehension. How can we rebel and reverse the decision?

  8. I agree absolutely with what you are saying so clearly. I am outraged that a tiny majority 1.9% can strip me of my rights as a EU citizen. I applied for citizenship in U.K. on the basis that I would be a European citizen not merely British. This referendum not only challenged all I hold dear but threatens to undo almost a century of peace in Europe & the major achievements of peace in Ireland. It is also demonstrably threatening our prosperity & economy & favours ill-informed or mis-informed mob rule over an elected representative government.

  9. Your article underlines the case for Cameron to be named the most catastrophically awful Prime Minister if my lifetime. For the record, I’m 56 so I remember the Thatcher years very well.

    For Cameron, the referendum original referendum pledge was purely about managing his party and nothing to do with the national interest. Once he had unexpectedly won the election he felt duty-bound to fulfil the pledge and set about doing so as quickly as possible. That meant heading to Brussels with a promise to achieve fundamental change (without ever giving the faintest glimmer of a clue to what that change might be) and claiming to have achieved it a matter of weeks later. Nobody who has even a vague idea of how the EU works could possibly believe that “fundamental change” could be achieved in such a short time. However, for Cameron, timing was the most important factor.

    We are now left with a totally dysfunctional government with ministerial pronouncements being slapped down by the Prime Minister on an almost weekly basis. We have ministers claiming that the referendum result was “overwhelming”. Presumably, in the dictionary according to Theresa May “overwhelming means overwhelming” in a Humpty Dumpty sort of way.

    Unfortunately, we also have an opposition led by a man whose support for EU membership is tepid at best. They should be holding the government to account and making sure it fulfils the pledge to remain in the single market. They should be making the case for a second referendum when the terms of leaving are known. Instead, I’m not convinced that Jeremy Corbyn particularly cares one way or the other.

    In a mature democracy, the press would play its part in holding the government to account. Unfortunately, we have the Express, Mail and Sun instead. They are perfectly content to allow May to demonstrate her authoritarian streak and leave the public in blissful ignorance of what the future of the country might be. All Murdoch cares about is that he finds it easier to influence UK governments than influencing the EU.

    Certain sections of the press are also suggesting that those of us who enthusiastically backed Remain should simply shut up. The fact that two tabloids led their front page with this demand on the same day and that Tory ministers quickly followed suit should be seen as sinister. Instead, we just mocked the councillor who started a petition to change the law on treason and accepted this blatant attack on free speech.

    If the issue was no more important than whether the right contestant won the Great British Bake Off, it would be perfectly reasonable to suggest that people should simply live with it. This referendum cannot be treated in the same way. I still believe that the result was a disaster for this country and will continue to exercise my right to say so.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with what you’ve written, also with the other points other commentators have submitted above. I cannot understand that what is so obvious to us here and many, many others, will not be seen by those in government or those who voted Leave on the basis of half-truths and downright lies. “There is one so blind as he who will not see.”

  10. I agree with every word that you have written. Everything about this sorry episode is utterly flawed. The EU Referendum Bill was a very shoddily-written piece of legislation and was clearly not fit to be passed into law, but unfortunately it was. The Act should have specified that for there to be a change to the status quo, the number of votes cast to Leave should have exceeded 50% of the eligible electorate. The electorate should have included everyone over the age of 16 living in the UK, regardless of nationality, because all of those people would be affected by the outcome, plus all UK citizens living abroad. It did none of that and was therefore a shambles.

    Those who are trumpeting the result as “the Will of the People” are being disingenuous. No one knows why each leave voter chose that option. The evidence is that there were many, many reasons, not all of them about the business in hand.

  11. Thanks for writing this brilliant article. I’m encouraging people to send it to their MPs, demanding a response to the points you raise.

    I wanted to add a couple of things. I don’t know the numbers, but British citizens who lived abroad for more than 15 years were not allowed to vote, even though there is a manifesto commitment to allow them to. Also, many of those who were allowed to vote were Commonwealth citizens who are living in the UK. By including these people but not EU citizens, the vote was skewed in favour of leave as these people have an interest in Britain leaving the EU. (They hope that deals will be signed with India, Australia, Canada, Nigeria etc that will allow them to work here on the sort of footing that EU citizens currently have.)

  12. Thank you to everyone for your comments. I haven’t had time to reply to them all individually. Write to your MP. If they supported Remain then tell them you expect them to stick to their guns. Write to the press. Challenge every glib statement that Brexit means Brexit, or that there is a mandate to take us out of the Single Market. Use the arguments I provided when anyone says that we have to respect democracy. We’ve got to fight against the bullies who are trying to take over the country. It’s appalling that it is now considered acceptable for UKIP politicians and disgraceful papers like the Daily Express to smear opponents as traitors and Quislings.

  13. Pingback: An overwhelming mandate? – James Christie's personal blog

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